The People on St. Thomas
If not for some special people, I might not have taken the interim position as the rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. So who are they, the people to whom I am alluding whose presence helped to persuade me to stay on the island for a year? One moment, please, and I will tell you.
Let me begin my story by describing to you the folks who inhabit the island on which I now temporarily reside. They are a veritable palette of colors: black, white, red, yellow and whatever other color God created in his/her image. We have descendants of slaves who are the majority on the island and who serve as politicians, police, and in various bureaucracies; immigrants from India who own and manage many of the jewelry stores that serve the tourists; an assortment of white folks who are retirees, professionals and business people; Muslims who own gasoline stations and other small businesses, especially grocery stores. And while folks are here for many different reasons—some natives remain here for a lack of choice—there is also a breed of people who live on the island because they desire the slow pace of island living. The truth is that it doesn’t matter why you are here—by choice or compulsion—the island provides an environment that forces you to slow down and look at life in “slower” motion. This is the lesson I learned in short order! Within a short time of living here, I quickly learned that blasting my horn in traffic is just not done, even for a good reason such as when a car stopped in front of me in the middle of the road and the driver decided to carry on a conversation with an acquaintance who happened to be passing by. I, and of course others, had to wait for the conversation to end and then, and only then, could we all move on. In the morning when I am driving to my synagogue (down a winding, pot-holed road), a woman sits under the shade of trees, too close to the roadside, selling the daily paper. Although I have never done it, it’s a morning ritual for many drivers who stop their cars, buy their paper while halting all traffic, and then continue on their way. I am not kidding—this is really what goes on. While I can give you other examples of how different, slower, the pace of life is here compared to Atlanta, let me just observe that people on this island are not frenetic—they seem to be calm, moving slowly and unconcerned with rushing. The calmness that pervades life here is also reflected in the tone of voice people use with each other: it’s polite and a greeting is most always reciprocated. People will greet you with hello or how are you; and most times they will respond to me in kind when I initiate a greeting. “May you have a blessed day”, is not uncommon, especially as I have noticed, from elderly women. Even with the persistent poverty and the scant social services, people are seemingly present, calm.
Although what I have just said is retrospective in that I am putting it all together now after living here for about three months, the soul of the island was already discernible and present when Silvia and I first met Steve and Leslie in whose B&B we stayed as guests on our first visit to the island. Steve and Leslie Rockstein, what wonderful people to meet and befriend. Two people whose beauty is apparent the first time you meet them and you tell yourself, “They will be my friends”. Steve is a photographer by profession; very talented and accomplished. His “Photography 1971-2011: Care retrospective” graces one of the tables in my rented condo. The variety of subjects Steve captures with his lens are people and objects that take on life even though they are rendered motionless in the moment: the moment expands into a context that allows me to enter the frame and be part of the event. Steve captures the soul of people and things, and he doesn’t indulge in photographing just “nice” things. He captures the rawness of life in black and white and also color. One of the things that impresses me about Steve is his fearlessness, as some of the situations he photographed potentially put him in harm’s way. This is a tough guy who began his career as a social worker in New York. You wouldn’t want to mess with him: muscular, big, now with a shock of white hair. For whatever toughness, Steve is one of the gentlest people you can find, even as he possess the intensity of an artist. From social worker to editor and designer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, capturing on film those evens that sometime startle us when we open a paper. Steve proudly identifies himself as a hippie, and in his case I see an idealist who is sufficiently courageous to look under the surface, undeterred by convention. Together with Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Melvin L. Claxton, Steve published the volume,” Public Housing/Public Shame”. In 1985 the two men were honored at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. As for the present, Steve dedicates himself to teaching photography, swimming daily at Megans Bay, and jamming with a close friend on Saturday afternoon.
Leslie, Steve’s sweetheart and wife from his youth, is wise, insightful and open to possibilities. A teacher by profession and a onetime owner of a kindergarten, she, I suspect, anchors and grounds Steve. Her kindness is evident in the tone of her voice and her humor. Leslie is Steve’s counterpart of gentleness and compassion. As the chair of our Caring committee, all of Leslie’s soulful qualities become even more evident than usual—especially her concern for people. Still, after thirty years on the island, Leslie has accomplished what seems almost contradictory: she is able to imbibe the more relaxed pace of St. Thomas and yet retain the drive to accomplish things. This is not always easy: to get things done when the air you’re breathing through your nostrils and the pours of your skin lulls you into a somnambulistic state of all is groovy. So let me now conclude by saying that as much as I have learned about Steve, there is still more for me to get to know about Leslie.
Leslie and Steve made a first and significant impression on Silvia and me. They, whether aware of it or not, allowed me to see past the smallness of the island, a place surrounded by water, devoid of a bookstore, and for god’s sake, even a Starbucks.